By on February 9, 2022


The New York Times often gets unfairly criticized, usually by readers who have their own political biases (right and left), but sometimes the criticism lobbed its way is not only very fair, but accurate.

And when it comes to autonomous driving, the vaunted Times has stepped in it, big time.

It all started with this Farhad Manjoo column about how he took a road trip in a loaned Cadillac Escalade and said he fell in love with it. In part because of GM’s Super Cruise. He then went on to call the system “self-driving” on at least one occasion. Yes, he did point out that Super Cruise still required drivers’ attention, and his description of how Super Cruise works was, as far as I can tell, technically accurate, but he also seemed to oversell how good the system is while downplaying the amount of responsibility that a human driver has when it comes to operating Super Cruise.

Our competitors over at Jalopnik called out the Times and the paper did appear to change the headline on the digital edition from “My Big Fat Self-Driving Road Trip” to “Help. I’ve fallen for that Cadillac Escalade”, but near as I can tell, references to self-driving remain in the text.

Say it with me, kids. No fully self-driving cars are available for sale today.

Again: No fully self-driving cars are available for sale today.

And one more time: No fully self-driving cars are available for sale today.

Yes, Tesla calls its advanced driver-assistance system “Full Self-Driving” but it really is not. Naming it so doesn’t make it so. Tesla’s system, like GM’s, is Level 2, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration describes thusly: “An advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) on the vehicle can itself actually control both steering and braking/accelerating simultaneously under some circumstances. The human driver must continue to pay full attention (“monitor the driving environment”) at all times and perform the rest of the driving task.”

That, friends, is not self-driving. And the Times should make the distinction. After all, the government does. So does the Associated Press – and many media outlets use the AP Style Guide as a template for how to refer to and describe certain things. While the Times has its own style guide, it should follow the AP’s lead – the AP is quite clear on the distinction between autonomous vehicles and those with ADAS: “The term driverless should not be used unless there is no human backup driver. As of now, there are no autonomous vehicles for sale to the public, although many are being tested on public roads.”

It’s dangerous for the Times to not make the distinction – it confuses consumers, who could end up believing Level 2 systems are self-driving when they are not. That could lead to irresponsible behavior – such as not paying attention to the road – that could lead to a wreck if the system fails.

And the Times made it worse with this apparent response to Twitter user Bryant Walker Smith, whose bio lists him as, among other things, the Law and Mobility Project Co-Director at the University of Michigan: “In short, although the auto industry may distinguish between advanced driver-assistance systems and autonomous or self-driving vehicles, most people do not, and we do not expect them to.”

Wait, what?

First of all, it’s not just the industry that makes the distinction – it’s the government. Second, isn’t it the paper’s job to inform the public of the distinction? We reached out to Times ourselves for comment and have not heard back.

One of the purposes of journalism that gets kicked around in academia, one I agree with, is “to inform and entertain.” I’d change it to “and/or” entertain, since some stories inform but aren’t entertaining and vice versa, but the point is that a major purpose of journalism is to inform. To tell readers what they don’t know. Instead, the Times is intentionally ignoring an important distinction that many members of the public are not aware of, because it has decided that since the public misuses the term, it is too late to change things for the better.

And again, not knowing the difference between a Level 2 ADAS and actual self-driving can get people killed. It’s bad enough that Manjoo seems blasé about Super Cruise’s abilities and his own level of responsibility. That’s annoying enough, and he should be taken to task. But it’s another for the paper to misuse the terminology when it could be so easily changed.

Imagine a scenario where a driver borrows a Tesla or Super-Cruise equipped car from GM. Imagine the borrower hears that the system is “self-driving” and turns it on, and lets their attention wander. Even with all the safeguards in place that are meant to get the driver involved if something goes wrong or they stop watching the road, an accident could still occur. The cameras that monitor a driver’s eye can be fooled, or flat-out fail. If the driver isn’t engaged in paying attention, he or she could react too late. People could get hurt, or even die.

Now, imagine the same scenario, but the borrower knows that even with the system engaged, he or she has to pay attention. Imagine the system failing to, say detect a car pulling out in front of the vehicle. An engaged participant, aware of the system’s limits, can reassert control before a collision occurs.

The thing is, the user, who might not know the difference between a spark plug and a crankshaft, has to know that the system isn’t self-driving.

The misuse of the term is going to get people hurt, if it hasn’t already. Tesla has already taken heat for its branding, as it should. But Tesla is a company that has an incentive to brand its technology in a way that helps it sells cars. We may find it reprehensible, we may wish Tesla didn’t do it (or wasn’t allowed to), but we can understand Tesla’s incentive.

The Times, however, has no reason to get this wrong and certainly has no reason to shrug when called on it.

I don’t think the Times is fake news or biased. I think much of the criticism thrown its way is flat-out factually incorrect. But the Times, like any other institution, is not perfect. While it’s one thing to be imperfect, it’s worse to fail to adjust to reasonable, factual criticism from experts in the autonomous-driving space (such as a former employee of this blog).

The paper got it wrong the first time. That’s bad enough. But to let news readers continue to be confused about a topic, in a way that could actually lead to injury or death, is inexcusable.

Be better, NYT.

[Image: GM]

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15 Comments on “Opinion: The New York Times Needs to Get Autonomous Driving Terminology Right...”

  • avatar

    “ Imagine the borrower hears that the system is “self-driving” and turns it on, and lets their attention wander. Even with all the safeguards in place that are meant to get the driver involved if something goes wrong or they stop watching the road, an accident could still occur.”

    Honest question – for the average driver what’s safer in that scenario:

    1. The system is driving but will yell at them if their attention wanders.

    2. Without the system where they can text to their hearts delight with no alert.

    I’m going with 1.

  • avatar

    Normies should have to take the bus.

  • avatar

    For what it’s worth, Super Cruise, being based on data-based internal navigation, sounds like it’s a better self-driving system than Tesla’s Crash Test Dummy system – whoops, I mean FSD. But that’s not saying much. I don’t trust my bod to ANY self driving system, and someone who works for the New York Times should have dug a bit deeper before slathering praise on one.

    (By the way…kudos for reaching out to the Times for comment. Certain writers for this blog should take note of that.)

  • avatar

    But, but, but the NYT is the newspaper of record! Revionist record to suit imperial interests, but of record!

    I hope you sent them a suitable Colonel Blimp email explaining your outright disgust at their shortcomings. Harumph. If it was anything like this screed, they’d fall asleep before reaching the end. Mr Healey gets so het up over trifles. If someone buys Super Cruise and operates it per NYT advice and crashes, in this litigious society, a fee-smelling ambulance-chasing lawyer could arrange a premium retire-for-life settlement for the dope who believed a newspaper article over the owner manual. Right?

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Good article, Tim.

    This (poor reporting example by the NYT) is further evidence that Level 2 systems should be banned.

    Tesla has sold nearly 2 million cars since its inception. Yet the FSD (not Autopilot) option has only been sold to 54000 customers, or less than 3%. That’s like the take rate on manual transmissions.

    They’re spending a fortune to develop a feature for a small number of people, and which doesn’t presently work, and which I believe will never be released as a Level 5 product due to liability.

    Hyundai’s driver assist gets good marks in reviews, but it’s always being tested on sunny streets in the Southwest US. Show me how these products work in a construction zone during a snowstorm, with a flagman on the road. Will they let my car straddle a dead raccoon, or will it slam on the brakes? No thanks.

    • 0 avatar

      “Will they let my car straddle a dead raccoon”

      • Subaru’s system will pause in the middle of the road and hold a memorial service for the raccoon

      • For $89/month, BMW’s “Dead Aim” system will run two wheels directly over the raccoon carcass, film this at high speed, and automatically post it to your social media account for later replay in slow motion

  • avatar

    “The New York Times often gets unfairly criticized”

    I don’t think articles that replace fact with bias result in “unfair” criticism.

    It’s completely warranted.

    • 0 avatar
      Rick T.

      “One of the purposes of journalism that gets kicked around in academia, one I agree with, is “to inform….” ”

      Got a belly laugh out of that. A fine example of Gell-Mann Amnesia in the wild. The purpose of journalism today is advocacy and opinion disguised as reporting, particularly egregious left of center. It’s why the usual suspects always criticize Fox. See also projection.

  • avatar

    It reminds me of a joke.

    The State Police sets up a detour because of a dangerous condition up the road. Cars proceed as directed until a van comes careening down the road, runs over the roadblock and crashes in a ditch.

    The troopers run over to the accident and find a dazed occupant. They perform field sobriety tests and he comes up clean.

    When they ask the driver what happened, he says, “Well, I got a little thirsty so I set the cruise control and went in back to get a Coke.”

  • avatar

    Advancements in both AI technology and sensor technology are needed to actually get to level 5. There is a new generation and type of AI under development that is needed to make it work. New sensor technology like ground fingerprinting with ground-penetrating radar and SWIR arrays are needed as well.

    It’s possible to build systems that are far superior to a human driver, but the technology isn’t there yet. It’s probably more than a decade away. the thing that worries me is that these early systems are going to be so crappy, people will be scared away when the real working systems are developed.

    • 0 avatar

      Did you learn nothing from the Terminator movies? :)

      • 0 avatar

        @kcflyer: Oh yeah, I do a lot of work in simulation. My machines sort of live in a version of the matrix.

        A better series to watch is “Humans” with Gemma Chan. That’s a good predictor of where I think we’re headed.

        For a little background on the hardware:

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    The NY Times is not a news organization. It’s a building that acrobats occasionally climb.

  • avatar

    The NYT has a history of making shit up. Why would you expect this to be any different.

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